Breaking Down the 49er Running Game Part 1 : Abstract Football

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - JANUARY 22: Frank Gore #21 of the San Francisco 49ers runs the ball against Mathias Kiwanuka #94 of the New York Giants during the NFC Championship Game at Candlestick Park on January 22, 2012 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Hello everyone. I'm sure most all of you know me from the comments section here and know I love talking football. Starting this season I will be doing some analysis for the front page. Right now the idea is to do some scheme work during the downtime of training camp and pre-season and maybe take advantage of the All 22 view on NFL Rewind to break down a play or two each week that contributed to our success on Sundays.

Since the Greg Roman offense is built on the power running game I think it's appropriate to start by looking at it from a ground up approach. By putting all the nuts and bolts together ourselves we can all understand what each play is designed to do and what roles offensive personnel play in driving that success. But building a running game from the ground up is a daunting task, so first we need to understand running the football in the abstract and that's what we will be talking about today.

In the next post we'll look at the the same thing from the point of view of the defense. We'll explore some abstract concepts on how teams attempt to defend the running game and some of the schematic high notes. After that the plan is to have three posts that tie everything together by looking at two of the core running plays in the Greg Roman playbook and then finish off by looking at some things outside the base running game that success in those two core plays will open up.

Follow me below the jump and we'll get started with the abstract running game.

Defining Points of Attack

There are three fundamental ways to win in football: Numbers, Angles, and Athletes. Throughout the history of the game the driving force behind most innovation in football strategy has been winning when you do not have the clear athletic advantage. If you have an overwhelming athletic advantage you will win more than you lose regardless of what scheme you run. But when you do not have a clear athletic advantage numbers and angles become the dominant drivers of success at a play level. So at the beginning we are going to assume that all 22 players on the field are Robert B. Average and later we will go back and look at personnel requirements and points of failure.

The running game begins with defining the points of attack. This is accomplished with the formation of the offensive line. The center gives you one point of attack on either side of him, the guards each add another point of attack on their outside shoulder, and this repeats for as many men as you put on the line. The fullback is another blocker that may be inserted anywhere on the offensive line to create another additional gap for which the defense must be accountable.

Edit for Clarification :

These are not tech numbers like you hear players being mentioned as a 3Tech or 1 Tech. These are counting numbers. All we are doing here is counting the gaps created as we add additional linemen. Details on the base defense is coming next post. I apologize for the confusion.

So the total number of points of attack on the line of scrimmage is given by N+1, where N is how many guys you have on the line plus the number of backs who will not be carrying the football. For example if you run a standard pro-set line with one tight end and one fullback you have 7 natural points of attack on the line plus 1 point of attack that can be inserted anywhere along the line for a total of 8 points of attack. If you like running two tight end sets without a fullback you have 8 points of attack, all natural due to the line, if you add a fullback to that you have 9 total points of attack. Most of you are probably thinking by now "We know what these are, these are gaps", and you are right. We'll start using that term for comfort sake but please keep in the back of your mind that each gap is a point of attack.

Now that we've defined the natural gaps and created a position that can be an extra gap anywhere on the line we can just line up and run the ball down their throats right? Not so fast Jimmy Raye. There is an old axiom in football that states "The last coach to hold the chalk always wins". This is a reference to the fact if you know what play the other team is running you can run a play specifically designed to defeat it and it doesn't take much effort to design a defense that can handle a very vanilla Dive. So how do we run the football?

The answer to that question is the most important thing in this post and if you only take away one thing it should be this. Everything we do in the running game is designed to move the gaps after the snap or create gaps without adding additional blockers.

If you block the entire line left or right you are shifting each gap, if you pull a guard from one side to the other a gap goes with him. If you run with the QB you create an extra gap because your running back becomes an extra blocker and by reading a defender instead of blocking him you create an extra gap by blocking a man with air.

The Abstract Defense

This is the first point where we are going to talk about the defense. Right now we don't know what the defense looks like or how they will try to defend the points of attack that we have created, but we do know some things about the nature of defense that will help us out. The nature of a sound defense is gap accountability and pursuit. Gap accountability is the defenses plan for filling every point of attack with a defender.

The defensive formation and individual defender assignments define how each defender will get off the first block and attack their assigned gap. That is the first phase of the play for the defense.The second phase is pursuit. After getting off that first block each defender on the interior will take a specific angle to the ball carrier and pursue with the goal of gang tackling the runner.

So if moving the gaps at the snap creates confusion with gap accountability, how do we prevent pursuit? The main way is to punch a hole through the gap integrity of the defense and create a wall of bodies that shields the running back from the pursuit.

On inside runs we accomplish this by overwhelming the defense at the point of attack by creating more gaps to defend than they have defenders and getting our linemen to the second level to attack the linebackers. On outside runs we attempt to wall off pursuit by collapsing the line down to the backside of the play and kicking out any defenders coming from outside the point of attack which should create a running lane between the wall and the kick with a clear shot to the secondary.

These two figures are what a couple very generic runs might look like on the chalkboard when everything works how you plan it out. On the inside run the defensive line is moved off the ball and a couple offensive linemen have made it to the second level to attack the linebackers and create a running lane for the back. On the outside run notice how the strong-side linebacker is not blocked at the line of scrimmage. On outside runs the TE will let him run right by him into the backfield because we want him there. The fullback "kicks" the outside defender out of the play and that combined with the line screening the other linebackers is what opens the running lane.

I said earlier that for the time being we were going to pretend that all 22 guys on the field are Robert B. Average so we could talk about scheme match-ups, but the Jimmies and Joes you have running your X's and O's can amplify the strengths and weaknesses of the scheme. So now we have to talk about some personnel requirements and general points of failure in the running game where you can be outplayed.

Personnel Requirements

It's very rare that you actually find all the qualities you want in a single player, and each of your starting 11 is likely going to have weak spots but if you could have an ideal running team, this is what you would want.

Offensive line
  • Must have good upper body strength and violent hands to make contact with the defense at the snap and win the pad level battle.
  • Must have excellent lower body and core strength to get the defensive linemen moving.
  • Must have good agility and foot speed. Will be asked to pull out into space and make contact with smaller, faster defenders.
  • Must have excellent balance, a low center of mass, and a good feel for changes in momentum.
  • Must have a nasty mentality.
Fullback
  • Must have natural instinct and vision for identifying running lanes.
  • Must be able to move with speed, agility, and a low pad level, projecting power on the move.
  • Must be able to break down and stay square at speed through contact.
  • Must possess the instincts of a running back for identifying running lanes and his own blocking assignments.
Quarterback
  • Must sell every running play as a play-action with identical movements before and after the point of the hand-off.
  • Must identify defensive fronts and get his offense out of running plays where the defense has a numerical advantage at the point of attack.
Wide Receivers
  • Must have a willingness to block. That's it. They will be blocking corners and safeties, and if they have to take out a lineman or linebacker it will be on a blind-side. As long as they are willing to get violent they can be successful.
Running Backs
  • Must possess natural instinct and vision to identify running lanes before they open up.
  • Must have good acceleration, agility, and speed to reach running lanes before they close.
  • Must have the lower body strength to power through arm tackles and ankle grabs and fall forward for an extra yard on every run.

Unfortunately the defense has their own Jimmies and Joes and some of them are paid quite handsomely to wreck your running game. In general, this is how they do it.

General Points of Failure

First and foremost, you cannot allow the defensive line to penetrate the line of scrimmage. Nothing will blow up a run faster than playside penetration. That's going to be a loss nine times out of ten. If your guys can prevent penetration then they also have to get the defensive line moving. Playside, backside, into the second level, you just want to get them moving. Now each play has a direction you'd like to get each defender moving but the main thing is to move him. If you have five guys standing still hugging their defenders at the line of scrimmage you will have issues compromising defensive gap integrity because the defenders are only an outstretched arm from being in their assigned gap.

You also cannot allow the outside defenders to force the run back toward the defensive pursuit. No matter how well you wall off the backside defenders they will break down your blocks and continue pursuit. Think of our "wall" as a delaying action, not an impenetrable barrier. Any outside defender who can avoid the kick out block and force the run back inside buys his defense time and space to track down the ball carrier.

Here are some of the guys that will most frequently ruin your day in the running game. If any of these Jimmies are consistently outplaying your Joes you will not be very successful.

  • 4-3 Playside 1-Tech (Pat Williams - Retired) - These guys are borderline nose tackles and if you allow them to consistently eat up your center and guard the Mike linebacker is going to be a wrecking ball.
  • 4-3 Playside 3-Tech (Ndamokung Suh) - These are the professional line penetrators. If you want to run toward their side of the field you must prevent B gap penetration by the 3T or you're going nowhere.
  • 3-4 Defensive Ends (Justin Smith) - If you have to double team a 5 tech you are going to have major issues running against a 3-4. The playside backers are going to either force you back inside or outnumber you at the edge.
  • Middle and Inside Linebackers ( Willis / Bowman ) - These are the main gap fillers in 3-4 and 4-3 defenses and you gotta have a plan for dealing with them if you want to run the ball.
  • Cover 2 Corners (Antoine Winfield) - These guys can turn a 4-3 defense into a 9 man front and completely shut down any outside runs. You need WR that can at least tie these guys up at the line.

Next post we're going to look a little bit more at the defense from a scheme point of view and the nuts and bolts of how they want to take away our running lanes and stop us in the backfield.

Edited : Thanks to CorneliusJ for catching some running back qualities that slipped into the offensive line list.

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